Chemical Spill Following Train Derailment in Ohio

A black plume rises as a result of a controlled detonation of part of the derailed Norfolk Southern trains in East Palestine, Ohio, on Feb. 6. Source: Gene J. Puskar / AP file.

By Nikolai Perebeinos

Toxic chemical clouds carried by the wind from a train derailment site- a description of a catastrophe movie- had become a reality for East Palestine, Ohio, residents.

On February 3rd, a 151-car cargo train operated by Norfolk Southern derailed. The train was carrying 20 cars with hazardous chemicals, including chloroethene, also known as vinyl chloride. Vinyl chloride is a highly toxic compound used for the production of plastic polyvinyl chloride (PVC). Out of 51 derailed cars, 10 were tank cars that dumped more than 100,000 gallons of hazardous chemicals.

A few days later, on February 5th, the officials ordered a shelter-in-place for the 5000 people in the town of East Palestine and ordered the evacuation of people within a one-mile radius of the accident. The Ohio governor Mike DeWine activated the state’s National Guard to assist local authorities.

“The vinyl chloride contents of five rail cars are currently unstable and could potentially explode, causing deadly disbursement of shrapnel and toxic fumes,” Mike DeWine said during the press conference the next day, February 6th. “Norfolk Southern Railway is planning a controlled release of the chemical at 3:30 p.m. The controlled release also has the potential to be deadly if inhaled.”

Later that day, Norfolk Southern started the burning of tanks containing vinyl chloride. As a result of the controlled burn, the combustion products were released into the atmosphere, including Phosgene, a chemical used as a weapon during World War 1, and hydrogen chloride, which is a strong acid. After the burning, many residents in surrounding counties started to complain about the chemical smell.

The evacuation order was lifted on February 8th after the Environmental Protection Agency reported that the air and water were safe, and the residents of East Palestine started to move back in. At that time, many started reporting a chemical smell, with some people complaining that they had developed a rash and nausea after returning.

There have been no human fatalities yet; however, the contamination of water has led to the deaths of 43,700 aquatic animals, according to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources . Some residents reported deaths of pets and farm animals as well. Many don’t trust the authorities’ claim that being in East Palestine is safe.

According to a group of scientists from Texas A&M and Carnegie Mellon University, the levels of 9 out of 12 chemicals monitored by the EPA are higher than normal. Despite them being considered safe levels for short-term exposure, the remains of those chemicals can pose long-term health risks to the residents. “It’s not elevated to the point where it’s necessarily like an immediate ‘evacuate the building’ health concern,” said Dr. Albert Presto, an associate research professor at Carnegie Mellon University. “But, you know, we don’t know necessarily what the long-term risk is or how long that concentration that causes that risk will persist.”

The EPA is offering testing and cleaning services to concerned residents of East Palestine. The agency has been testing water in wells and air in buildings. The services provided to residents will be reimbursed by Norfolk Southern. “They will clean up every single piece of debris, all of the contamination, to EPA specifications and satisfaction,” EPA Administrator Michael Regan said to CNN. “They will pay for it – fully pay for it. At any moment, if we have to step in because they refuse to do anything, we will do the cleaning up ourselves. And when we recoup our total costs, we can charge them three times the amount of the cost of the federal government. That is what the law provides.”